It's spring and farmers markets are opening around the state. In Berlin, a city that’s been through some tough economic changes, the summer farmers market has long been a bright spot of local food and community. But earlier this spring, it was looking like that farmers market might not be happening anymore.
The market was started seven years ago by the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network, or WREN.
For the past few years, it was held on Pleasant Street, a one-way street that runs through Berlin’s dense, brick-lined downtown. It was every Thursday in the summer, from 3 until 7.
Kathy Trumbull was a regular. “It was a great community place to come and get your vegetables, but you’d see everybody you haven’t seen in ages, and you’d end up taking 2 hours sometimes just to pick up a bag of veggies,” she remembered.
In early April, WREN sent out a newsletter. Among other things, it announced that the farmers market would no longer be held in Berlin, but in the nearby town of Gorham.
Trumbull says that news was a surprise, and that it hit hard in Berlin.
The town of Gorham is only about six miles away from Berlin, a fifteen-minute drive. But it’s got a very different feel. Berlin is a manufacturing city, built along a river. A former paper mill towers over the many vacant spaces downtown.
Gorham’s downtown feels quieter, more spread out. I met WREN’s Executive Director, Liz Penney, at the Gorham Town Common, where the farmers market will be held this summer. It’s a large green park next to Gorham Town Hall.
“It will be comfortable, it will be attractive, it will be visible,” Penney said, as we walked through the park, imagining what is to come. “There’s a bandstand and a playground for children, so it’s a really large space and there’s room for a lot of people, there are picnic benches under tables for people to have a little dinner and listen to music, so it’s really a great spot.”
There’s also a baseball field and a train museum, and the park sits on a major route for tourists in the summer.
“It wasn’t our plan to come here,” Penney explained, “It was suggested by a vendor. And with the road blocks we had in Berlin, it was like what are we going to do? So you know it wasn’t like, let’s go to Gorham – it was that our space in Berlin wasn’t working for us anymore.”
Pam Laflamme is Berlin’s community development director. She says the problem is that the old mill city never built in any natural gathering spaces. Every week for the farmers market, police had to block off a city street, and it could get uncomfortable. “They weren’t in shady spaces or green spaces,” she said, “and it made it really hard for those who would come out and be those vendors on a hot summer day, in 90 degree weather, with no shade on hot pavement.”
Laflamme and Penney say they looked for other locations in Berlin. WREN, the organizing group, works with SNAP, the Food Stamp Program, and runs a demonstration kitchen, so it has special requirements for space and electricity. But every location had a different problem – a business owner who objected, or a lack of visibility. The site in Gorham had obvious advantages.
Kathy Trumbull agrees that the Berlin market was like an oven on hot summer days, and it did need to move – but not out of the city. She says the two northern towns are different, and Berlin has particular needs.
“We have a lot of people that are low income,” she said. “We have a lot of elderly people who don’t drive, so it’s hard for them to actually get rides to the stores. It was nice to see people walking to the farmers market, and a lot of them did that.”
As Trumbull and others started talking, an idea began to form. Maybe, they could hold onto their summer farmers market, by starting a new one.
Trumbull made a Facebook page. She pulled together a committee, and then held the first meeting. “I told the whole committee this is like the blind leading the blind, I have no idea what to do!” she laughed.
Trumbull owns a real estate franchise. Over the past few months, she’s had to learn about things like agricultural labels, licensure, insurance and monitoring. And she’s also had to find a location.
A couple of weeks ago, she drove past some of the venues she and her group were considering in Berlin. She showed me some of the small city parks that she thought could have been considered.
After another few meetings of the organizing committee, some things got settled. The new market, the Berlin Community Market, will take place this summer, and the plan is to put it right on Main Street. There are a couple of small green spaces there, as well as an area that can be used for live music. The group is now working closely with Berlin’s Main Street Program. Organizers think they can hold the market without closing the street, so traffic and downtown businesses won’t be affected – and they might even benefit. These are important considerations for the fragile local economy.
In the North Country, weekends tend to be more about fishing and camping so it’s common for farmers markets to be held during the week. This one will take place on Tuesday evenings, from 5-8 pm.
On Thursday evenings, the market that used to take place in Berlin will be in Gorham.
Pam Laflamme, the community development director, says it’s tempting for two remote communities, each dealing with declining resources, to compete with each other. But she says a lot of the challenges they face are the same. “That municipal boundary line between the two of us is … just a boundary line on paper, and you need to figure out the ways to get beyond that and work together, because we’re just at a place in time and history, in which it’s more important to find ways to work together instead of trying to figure out the ways in which, you know, you wouldn’t.”
In Gorham, the farmers market will start next Thursday, June 8. In Berlin, it will start a bit later – July 11.
But for residents who, a short time ago, feared they had lost their farmers market, it’s been quite a turn. By midsummer, they’ll have not one farmers market, but two.